He doesn't just talk to kids about the evils of drugs; he holds a revival, ranting and raving between packed houses from coast to coast about
the dangers kids face and the changes drugs bring to their lives. His talks are full of faith and fury, tears and regrets, passion and pain - an
occasionally a few inappropriate words.
"Some school principals don't like me because they think I use bad language," Toma told an assembly of Secaucus High School and Middle
School students on May 11. "But not this principal. Your principal understands how important my message is and how much you need to hear
As a former undercover cop in Newark, Toma has come to understand the habits and psychology of drug dependency, serving on the force for
21 years, and 16 years for the gambling and narcotics squad.
"Toma set arrests records by making over 7,000 arrests and obtained a record 98 percent conviction rate," said Secaucus High School Principal
Toma's two and half hour lecture stirred the packed gymnasium, mesmerizing students, many of whom had come into the place skeptical.
Although many giggled and grinned when Toma made his way to the stage, few if any grinned by the end of the performance. Some stared at
the stage as if dragged through a world of unimagined horrors - as they were.
Toma, whose life as a cop has been portrayed in at least two television series (including "Baretta"), told tales of drug addiction and ruined lives
that few students in a town like Secaucus could have imagined for themselves. Although Toma appeared in Secaucus twice before in 1998, for
most of the students gathered on May 11, this was all new.
Sixteen years in Newark
Toma spent 16 years surviving the streets of Newark. Although he was stabbed and shot many times, he never once fired his own weapon
while making an arrest.
"I had to use my brain," he said recently. "I had to learn how to talk; I had to learn how to fight; and sometimes, I had to learn how to cry -
especially when someone had a gun up against my head."
Toma was particularly famous for his disguises, and said he spent hours before a mirror putting them on, taking them off, knowing that his life
would depend upon this ability. Published pictures from the 1970s showed him dressed as a construction worker complete with hard hat; as a
drug dealer with a thick frizzy wig and sunglasses; and even as a woman with blonde curls.
Appearing before the kids at Secaucus High School, however, Toma wore none of these, just a white shirt and dark pants that have become as
much a uniform of his trade as a public speaker as the police uniform he wore while in Newark. Despite being a small man, Toma looks tough, a
gnarly figure seemingly capable of doing anything in a scrape, yet - for all this - Toma prefers non-violence.
Toma, 68, has toured the country, speaking before more than 15,000 assemblies, from schools to civic organizations, carrying his tales of horror.
He has spoken to more than 40 million kids over the last 40 years.
Relates personal experiences
As in his appearances here in 1998, Toma told about his own bout with drug addiction, how after saving a 5-year-old kid from choking, he came
home and panicked when his own kid choked to death, sending him into a fit of depression and eventual drug addiction.
"I always wanted to be a cop; I always thought I could help people," he said. "But what I found out was my boss didn't want me to help
people. He wanted me to make arrests."
Statistics issued by Gen. Barry McCaffry, former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, D.C. show that 13 million
people in the United States use drugs with about five million of these chronically addicted.
State statistics said about 228,000 New Jersey residents or about 3.5 percent of the population are addicted to illegal drugs. And the incidence
of accidental drug-related deaths among those 25 to 44 had risen steadily over the preceding decade to almost twice the national average.
McCaffry said most start between the ages of 12 and 13, the audience Toma targets in particular.
Toma's tales cover the death and addiction of other close family members, each one report bringing to his voice a level of pathos that manages
to move his audience closer and closer to tears. Each tale causes even the most macho boys to sag. One group of boys about four rows from
the front went from sneering to open awe.
Toma has been criticized for exaggerating the danger of some drugs, such as marijuana, but has defended his lectures - which are designed to
scare kids away from using drugs - claiming the chemicals in marijuana do cause damage to the brain.
"I don't care what chemists are doing in the laboratory," he said. "I've been doing this for years." He said he has volumes of medical
knowledge obtained directly from Newark's streets.
At one point during the presentation, Toma brought onto the stage four people from the Veteran's Hospital at East Orange - each person a
veteran of the military as well as drug addiction. Each person offered testimony to his or her struggle against drugs. They talked about the
death of friends and the profound misery drugs had caused in their lives. Most had lost all their possessions. All had lost their dignity. Several
had served time in prison.
"There are only four things that can happen to you when you use drugs," Toma said. "You can wind up in a mental hospital; you can end up in
jail; you can end up dead; or you can quit."
Reactions were overwhelming
Jessica Hensel, a senior at Secaucus High School, said she was supposed to leave early to pick up her moths at an area hospital, but got so
caught up in Toma's presentation she decided to stay and hear it all. Although Toma made numerous points with her, the whole presentation
moved her in a way she couldn't exactly explain.
Christine May, also a senior, said the presentation was both moving and informative.
"I didn't know about all the health risks associated with smoking marijuana," she said. "Hearing about all the chemicals in marijuana scared me."
Stephanie Bailey, another senior, agreed that Toma's information on the impact of marijuana startled her.
"It was all scary," she said. "But I think it got through to a lot of people."
Of numerous students asked during interviews for this article, only one student (who asked to remain anonymous) admitted using marijuana,
and she claimed she would stop as a result of hearing Toma.
"I think he talked about a lot of negative things," said Cherie Cronin, another Secaucus High School student. "But I think it may have changed
some people's lives."
In the principal's office after his performance, an exhausted Toma continued to preach, talking about the role of police officers in society, about
the need for cops to take a lead in helping people.
During this time, a young tearful girl walked in. She was a student who did not wish to give her name, but said Toma had helped her brother in
1998 during his last visit to Secaucus.
"He came to see Toma after the performance and told him about how addicted he was," the girl said.
Now the boy is in college and drug free, she said, noting how relieved her family is.
"We owe it all to Toma," she said.
A relative connection
Lindsay Flora, a student at Secaucus High School, didn't know she was related to anti-drug crusader David Toma until signs began to appear
"I kept seeing signs saying: 'Toma is coming,'" she said. "I kept wondering: 'Who is this Toma guy, anyway?"
Then someone told her she was related to him, and she went home to ask her parents. It turned out Toma was her father's uncle, and a man she
routinely called "Uncle Dave" at family functions.
"I hadn't a clue that he made speeches like these," she said, claiming Toma was normally quiet when she saw him around the family.
Yet knowing him, Flora said she was still moved by what he had to say because of the power of his speech. She also found herself intrigued by
the numerous family members that popped up in his tales, stories about relations she had not heard before, and about relatives who she never
Oddly enough, Toma's return to Secaucus came days after the wife of Robert Blake was shot to death. Blake played a character based on Toma
in the 1970s television series "Baretta."